A Tender Message Posted in a Park

This weekend while wandering through one of the wonderful nearby off-leash parks where my dog loves to play ball and chase squirrels I saw a slip of paper attached to one of the trees. Out of curiosity I approached it to find out what was written and read a beautifully written poignant message from another dog lover who earlier in the week sadly had to say goodbye to her companion of more than 15 years. Her words impacted me so deeply that I felt an urge to contact her and express my condolences even though I did not know her or her departed canine friend. Fortunately she left her e-mail address on the note she had written. Below is the message I sent her. Life is precious and all too brief…be sure to let those you love know how important they are, no matter what their species.

 

I was in Dracena Park this weekend and saw the notice you had posted about the loss of your beloved Sequoia. Even though I do not believe I ever met you or Sequoia I was deeply moved by your message and wanted to write to express my condolences. It was evident from your words that obviously you loved her enormously and must be experiencing a terrible sense of loss, emptiness, and sadness. There’s very little that those close to you much less strangers can say or do to help you get through this tragic period in your life other than let you know that they are thinking of you and hoping that time will ease your pain.

 8 ½ years ago I had to say goodbye to my beloved Sheba, a Border Collie/lab mix that we adopted when she was 4 months old and who was a cherished member of our family for 15 years. In my life I have lost many close family members and very dear friends; yet having to make the horrific decision to end her life was the most painful experience I have ever endured even though I knew then and now it was the humane thing to do. Despite the passage of time I still think of her often and have pictures of her throughout my house including a favorite one on my desk. It took me a long, long time to heal; I was a true basket case for months. Even now on the anniversary of her passing I become very withdrawn and downhearted although I have found that making a donation to one of the many worthwhile animal welfare organizations is a worthy way of honoring her memory as well as helping me to deal with my sorrow better. I still think of her often but now those memories are mostly happy ones. One thing that has helped me is knowing that both my life and hers were ever so enriched by the years we spent in this world together and I am ever so grateful for that time, as brief as it was.

 I mention my history and my handling of Sheba’s death without knowing anything about you other than the poignant words you left for all your fellow dog lovers in the park. You wrote “she changed my whole life and taught me so much” and “she will be in our hearts forever”. That so echoes my sentiments about Sheba and tells me how deep the love was that you shared with her. Allow yourself to grieve. There is a wonderful quote from the movie “Shadowlands” that so well sums up the feelings you are forced to endure now. Anthony Hopkins’ characters comments “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.” Sadly that is the deal – to not be feeling that hurt now you would never have known the joy she brought into your life.

 You ended your message on a very positive note. “I will see you back here when I find my new doggy soul mate.” That is the hopeful, healthy outlook that will help to get you through your dark days. It took me 8 months to heal sufficiently and to find my new best friend, a lovable, energetic, playful 8 week old Border Collie mix that we named Aries. I swore when we got him that I wouldn’t allow myself to love our new boy like I had loved Sheba. And yet of course I did and he is now the sunshine of my days. He will be turning 8 years old in 2 weeks. I’m sure your doggy soul mate is out there waiting for you to fall in love with him or her now or sometime in the foreseeable future. You’ll know when you’re ready and when you are I wish you much joy and happiness. I’m sure you’ll be a wonderful mom to the loveable and lucky pooch.

My Best Wishes to You

Ed Hartnett

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Shifting Gears on Writing My Novel

Most of what I have been writing here on my blog relates to books I have recently read and my overall impression of those works. If you have been following my writings, you will recall that my reviews have been quite positive. I am not sure whether that is because I have made good choices or simply that I do not have a particularly critical mind. I like to think it is the former. I will continue to post comments on books as I read them but today want to focus my attention on the actual craft of writing.

I have picked up a few books so far which I’m finding helpful in this regard. The first is Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy. I laughed when I first read the title thinking “is the Dummies reference intended for the fiction writer himself or for his readers?”  At the same time I’m also reading Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish by James Scott Bell. Each book received excellent reviews at both Amazon and Goodreads and I’m finding both quite helpful. Since each of these are How-To books I’m reading them leisurely, taking notes, and incorporating those ideas that fit my needs best.

A book that I heard much about when I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference (SFWC) last month is The Chicago Manual of Style, which was first published in 1906, is now in its 16th edition, and is widely regarded as the single best reference for writers, editors, proofreaders and sundry other professions related to the writing world. I do not currently own a copy of this book since even a heavily discounted copy sells for $40. Fortunately for me I was able to borrow one from my local library. One of these days I know I will have to bite the bullet and buy a copy but for now I am glad to have this valuable reference work on loan. If anyone has any suggestions of other books I may want to investigate leave a comment here or write me at Ed@EdHartnett.com.

This also is a good time to mention that my progress on my book writing has been going slow of late. I can make all kinds of excuses for that but I will fess up to the fact that I simply am not setting aside time every day for doing it. Several times at the SFWC I heard it stressed that one needed to block a certain time of day (from one to three hours) at least five times a week to dedicate to writing a manuscript. James Scott Bell in his book I cited earlier mentions this as well. He in fact recommended setting a word count goal rather than specific amount of time to make sure you actually achieve results. Mornings work best for me; I’m refreshed, most energized (at least after 2 or 3 cups of coffee) and my pooch is not yet staring at me with his adorable eyes begging to go out for our hour in the park. Plus it normally is very quiet in my house at that time. So starting tomorrow morning I am committing to writing at least 1000 words in my manuscript five times a week. Wish me well!

Background Reading for My Novel, A Small & Very Satisfying Detour: French Lessons

French Lessons

When I attended last month’s San Francisco Writers Conference among the many fine individuals I met was Ellen Sussman, author and writing coach. I attended two workshops where she spoke, both of which were excellent. TheFeeding Your Daily Writing Habit: 4 Steps to Higher Productivity” I found especially valuable. One of her books that she mentioned was French Lessons, published in 2011. Being a hardcore Francophile (I’ve been to Paris eight times and I’m not done yet), I was so envious to learn that she lived in my favorite city for five years. I got an opportunity to talk one-on-one with her which was a thrill. After leaving the conference and getting back into a more normal routine, I searched online to learn more about French Lessons and decided that while it did not fit the theme of the novel I am writing I had to include it on my To-Read list.

Just last night I finished the novel and am so glad I fit the book into my reading schedule. This was a guilty pleasure of a read. The story takes place in Paris all in a single day. The work can be viewed as three separate short stories although all three are interconnected. Each story involves an American in Paris who is spending time there with a French tutor to improve her or his French-speaking skill. The characters have all come to Paris for very different reasons. Josie has just suffered a tragic personal loss and is there hoping to heal her broken heart. Her tutor is Nico, a sensitive poet. Riley has come to Paris with her two children and husband whose business has brought him to the City of Lights and who now is largely ignoring her. Phillipe is her tutor and someone who seems to regard seducing women as life’s primary goal. Jeremy is a man in his forties, the husband of a famous American actress and who lives in her shadow but loves her enormously nonetheless. They are in Paris for a film shooting and he feels quite removed from her world. His tutor is the beautiful young Chantal to whom he is strongly attracted. The book begins with the three tutors whose lives are intertwined meeting at a café in the morning and ends later that afternoon at their scheduled rendezvous spot.

By story’s end all but one of the characters have learned something very important about him-or-herself and have had a wonderful adventure in the process. While it’s certainly not necessary to have spent time in Paris and fallen in love with the city in order to enjoy this book, it certainly enhances the experience. The author certainly knows the city well and describes its sights, sounds and smells very accurately. She also interjects just enough of the French language into her writing to add some interest without having a reader who knows little or no French wonder “what does that mean?” There is also just the right amount of sexual tension throughout to keep the reader curious and want to keep turning the page.

All in all I found this a very pleasurable read and am very happy I took a little detour in my reading path to enjoy this.

Background Reading for My Novel, Part VII: Dancer from the Dance

Dancer from the Dance

Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance first published in 1978 is a story of the post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS era of the gay NYC scene. Considered by many an important part of gay literature, the novel is told in the third person and is centered around the lives of two characters. Malone is a strikingly handsome young man from the Midwest who abandons the practice of law and his heterosexual façade initially to pursue his dream of perfect m/m romantic love, eventually submerging himself in the decadent world of sexual promiscuity and drugs. Sutherland, Malone’s mentor, is an older man and the quintessential bitchy, campy, drag queen. Much of the story takes place in Manhattan’s discos and Everard Baths and Fire Island’s world of unrestrained orgies.

The novel is well written but I must confess that by the time I finished reading it I felt as empty as the individuals who populate the story. I came out as a gay man in the same era as Malone’s character and indulged in much of the same hedonistic behavior that both he and the other people in the story so gloriously pursue. Consequently it’s not as though I disapprove or do not have an appreciation of the thrill that time and era had for our generation. I simply felt both while I was reading the book and upon completion that I really did not care about the fate of the protagonists. Because Sutherland’s character is so campy the sections of the book dealing with him were at least mildly amusing. Since Malone is described as being a hopeless romantic at least in the early parts of the novel, I found it ironic that he struck me as cold and not very interesting.

Dancer from the Dance  has been described by many as being a gay Great Gatsby. I’m ashamed to admit that I have never read Fitzgerald’s masterpiece so I obviously cannot comment on such comparisons. I fully intend to correct my reading oversight at some point in the future and maybe then a re-reading of Holleran’s book will leave me more satisfied. Despite my lukewarm feelings I am glad that I have read the book even though of all the books I have read since I started writing my own novel, I found this the least enjoyable.

Background Reading for My Novel, Part VI: Comfort and Joy

Comfort & Joy

I recently read Jim Grimsley’s Comfort & Joy, my decision based on very strong reviews on Goodreads. This was one of those rare books that I so wanted the story to continue for another 100 pages or more. This is a fast paced, quick read that one can easily polish off in two evenings. The story takes place in modern-day Atlanta and centers on the relationship between Ford McKinney, a pediatric resident in his twenties and Dan Crell, a 30-something administrator working at the same hospital as Ford. Their backgrounds and beliefs are very different. Ford is from a wealthy, very conservative family and is extremely closeted even to close friends and family. Dan’s roots are what one might call poor white trailer trash, is openly gay, a hemophiliac and HIV positive. With such disparate life experiences and perspectives they have their share of struggles in building a relationship although there is a strong mutual attraction from the start. For additional drama Grimsley adds the stress they like so many others have of visiting and dealing with family at Christmas time.

I was so drawn into Ford and Dan’s relationship that when I was getting down to the last twenty pages, I did not want their story to end. Seeing their love for each other grow throughout the novel, seeing Ford finally getting comfortable in his own skin and not be self-loathing about being gay, seeing him finally facing his self-righteous, narrow-minded parents and essentially tell them to go screw themselves if they could not accept Dan as his lover and life partner was a wonderful journey. I have read comments from others that the story of Dan’s past, his relationship with his family, especially his father and brother Grove, was disappointingly never explained and I shared those feelings after finishing the book.  What a nice surprise it was then to learn that Grimsley’s earlier award-winning novel Winter Birds in fact is that very story, the story of Danny’s troubled childhood. I eagerly look forward to reading that as well as another Grimsley book, Dream Boy.

Background Reading for My Novel, Part V: Giovanni’s Room

Giovanni's Room

A  book that always seems to appear on anyone’s list of great gay-themed fiction is James Baldwin’s modern-day classic Giovanni’s Room, his second novel, first published in 1956. The Publishing Triangle, the American association of the LGBT publishing industry, has ranked this as number 2 on its list of the best 100 gay and lesbian novels, second only to Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. As part of my plan to read an abundance of quality fiction that is gay-themed or of a coming-of-age genre to assist me in own writing efforts, I read this book in early January.

This is the first work of Baldwin’s I have ever read & what an incredible story it is. The protagonist David, a young American living in Paris in the 1950’s, for his entire life has been in complete denial that he is gay. Only when he meets the handsome Italian bartender Giovanni, who works in a gay bar in Paris, does he begin his slow acceptance of his sexuality. Tragically David begins this acceptance of his natural desires & stops lying to himself and others only when it is too late for him to have a long-term relationship with the man he realizes will almost certainly be the great love of his life. You know from the very beginning of this book that there will be a tragic ending and yet I found myself hoping it would not end the way it did.

Being a gay African-American in the 1950’s, Baldwin himself suffered a double dose of persecution and hostility with widespread racism and homophobia permeating American culture for his generation. He emigrated from the U.S. to Paris in 1948 where he felt life would be easier and lived in Europe the rest of his life.

This was a quick but painful story to read; I polished it off in two evenings. The novel is incredibly well written & poignant. Giovanni’s Room was a major breakthrough in the publishing industry, helping to broaden public awareness and opinion on same-sex desires and relationships at least in the minds of the reading public. In light of the growing acceptance of marriage equality, Baldwin’s novel is a reminder of just how far the fight for LGBT rights & acceptance has come since Baldwin’s time. I plan to read more by this brilliant author.

San Francisco Writers Conference

SFWC

In mid-February of this year I had the pleasure of attending the 10th Annual San Francisco Writers Conference held at the Mark Hopkins Hotel atop Nob Hill. I heard about the conference while doing some research for the novel I am currently writing; initially I had reservations about attending since I had not yet written very much of my manuscript. I wondered if attending the conference might be too early in the game for me, presuming that most of the attendees would be long-established writers who would question why a newbie author like me would dare to think he could invade their elite little world. Realizing that if I did not go I would have to wait another 12 months before it occurred again and that I could save myself the expense of hotel accommodations since the location was an easy commute for me, I figured I would take the plunge. I am so glad I overcame my doubts and went.

The four-day event over President’s Day weekend was completely sold out.  Literally hundreds of individuals and authors of all genres were there: poetry, memoir, science fiction, historical fiction, romance, fantasy, suspense, crime, young adult, you name it.  Yes some indeed were well established authors who enjoy a large readership and I did have the pleasure of hearing their presentations as well as talking to some of them directly. Many others though were working on a first or second book and it was great to talk to some of them and hear how they are dealing with the challenges they are experiencing. There also were a large number of editors, agents and publishers who provided me great insights on what I will need to be doing once I have completed my manuscript. During each of the time slots there typically were six different workshops and I could always find at least two that I wanted to attend. I also made some new friends and made connections with professionals who will be very valuable as I get closer to my finished work.

I left the conference filled with new exhilaration and a head stuffed with so many wonderful ideas and suggestions from people who all at one time were in the situation I am now. I look forward to the 2014 conference when I presume my manuscript will be complete. If not yet published at that time I now know that I will be at the right venue to make that happen.

Background Reading for My Novel, Part IV: Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name

I just completed reading Call Me by Your Name, an amazing first novel by André Aciman, published in 2007. Without question this is one of the most powerful, well crafted, beautifully written novels I have ever read. It is a book I know I could easily pick up and re-read once or twice more and each time finish with new insights and an enormous sense of satisfaction. Were it not for the fact that I have a long list of other works I am hoping to enjoy in the months ahead, I would do just that. This is a book that I believe the reader wants to read slowly to savor both the language and impressions. I liken it to a well-aged bottle of wine that one uncorks and allows to aerate before sipping slowly, letting the rich flavors delight the taste buds before gently swallowing.  Or an incredible meal at a favorite five-star restaurant where you have dined before and where you want to linger over a long dinner with an old friend or new love. The author has an amazing mastery of language and paints superb images and characters in this very sensual literary novel.

The story is told through the eyes of a man who recounts his experience from 20 years earlier when he was 17 years of age. Elio comes from a well-educated and wealthy family who live on the Italian Rivera. Each summer his father a literature professor has a house guest for six weeks to assist the young academician prepare a manuscript before publication. One summer Oliver, a young handsome American Columbia University grad student comes to stay and very quickly Elio becomes passionately and obsessively drawn to him, a new sexual awakening for the teen. The two eventually do consummate their relationship but not before Aciman slowly and sensually describes the longings Elio is feeling and the incredible game of cat and mouse the two play. The affair becomes very heated and ends when Robert returns to the U.S. immediately following their passionate and memorable trip together to Rome.  Even with the passage of 20 years, the powerful influence Oliver has had on Elio remains.

From start to finish Aciman somehow captures raw human emotions in a way that very few authors are capable of doing. Some readers will no doubt become bored with the slow pace but for someone who truly enjoys well written prose, the journey is fantastic. Longing, passion, romance, tenderness, remorse are all in abundance here, not in some romance novel sort of way but in a manner that rings authentic. I have been very fortunate in my choice of authors and titles to read preparing for my novel. This one to date is my favorite.

Background Reading for My Novel, Part III: A Density of Souls

A Density of Souls

Shortly after deciding to write my first novel, I began searching for books to read that had a theme similar to the one I was writing. I put together a list of worthwhile candidates, a list that continues to grow as I move forward.  A Density of Souls by Christopher Rice was the first book I read from this list. For anyone not familiar with Christopher Rice, he is the son of the famous author Anne Rice and the late poet Stan Rice. This was Rice’s first novel, written when he was a mere 21 and first published in 2000.

The novel’s main characters are of a similar age and generation as those in my novel. The protagonist Stephen is a gay teenager living in modern-day New Orleans who is searching for love and acceptance as well as dealing with some very ugly homophobia from former friends. Since Rice’s book has received generally very positive reviews, I thought this would be a good reading for my gaining a better appreciation of some of the issues facing gay youth in modern society. Even though I too am gay, I am considerably older (to put it mildly) than Stephen and his contemporaries. I was not certain just how different things might be today from when I came out of the closet in 1976. Thus I felt the book would provide me a better understanding of the issues facing today’s gay youth, particularly those in their late teens and early twenties.

The novel did not disappoint, although before reading it I did not appreciate just how dark it would be. It is an enjoyable fast read, a story that takes some surprising twists, interesting characters all of whom are flawed, some severely so, and a dramatic narrative that includes murder, rape, and a horrific mass killing by a hate group. This is not the theme my novel will have but the issues of homophobia, coming out and finding love and tenderness that Rice addresses in his book will be helpful for me in my efforts. Thank you Christopher for writing such a worthy first novel and for helping me in my quest.